Monday, August 1, 2011

Review: Guesswork, by Jeffery Donaldson

It’s rare for a poetry collection’s jacket copy to say something succinct rather than hyperbolic about a poet’s work, but whoever it was at Goose Lane Editions that wrote the back-cover blurb for Jeffery Donaldson’s new book, Guesswork, certainly knew what he or she was doing. The copy describes Donaldson’s verse as “[r]evealing a mind at once conversant with literary deities and the subtleties of the everyday …” Anyone who has read Donaldson’s previous collections, particularly his formidable 2008 book Palilalia, knows that this description suits him perfectly. Whether conjuring the ghost of Northrop Frye, punning playfully on terms like “Play Doh’s Cave”, or riffing on the works of Rilke, this is a poet who believes not only in the existence of literary deities but in contemporary poetry’s ability to extend their conversations, to build upon them and reveal the rich nuances of the world around us.

In many ways, Guesswork picks up where Palilalia left off. The overarching trope of that earlier collection was to examine, through the prism of poetry, Donaldson’s and his son’s own palilalia, a subset of Tourette’s syndrome characterized by the involuntary repetition of words or phrases. Palilalia did this is a number of ways, most cleverly by utilizing the pantoum and other poetic forms that rely on repetition for their power. The first piece in Guesswork, “Guillotine”, is a narrative poem that once again renders a Touretter’s tic into an exquisite work of art. (You can watch a well-crafted YouTube video of the poem, comprised of images and Donaldson himself reading.) Donaldson’s descriptions of his disorder are breathtaking here; he sweeps us up in a relentless flow of metaphors tripping madly over themselves to get out – much like the very tics they describe:

… I’ve made my peace
with the spinning dynamo’s monotonous hum,
engine’s run-on, clockwork’s unnerving tick.

Somewhere above, a sloshed puppet master
grapples his tangled lines – the heartless jerk! –
pulling my leg. No unmangling the doublespeak,

the trickster-muse’s obscure hieroglyphic,
his cryptic morse tapping itself out in broken
longs and shorts …

From this launching pad, Guesswork ascends into a stratosphere rich in delightful preoccupations. One might surmise that the collection’s title is ironic, since none of the poems here come off like guesswork at all; rather, they feel forged out of obsessions or observations that may have taken years, or even decades, to incubate. While there are some wonderful one-off poems in the book (“On the Return of Allegory” and the collection’s title piece are stand-outs), for the purposes of this review I want to focus on four longer sections that act as Guesswork’s key pillars.

The first is the seven-poem sequence called “Book”. Here, Donaldson provides a kind of chirographic history of the codex: indeed, “Book I” is laced with cursive flourishes as it describes the world’s first text: “but for nourishment insinuates/ a wriggling, intermittent cuneiform./ The bark curls back, dried and peeled …” By “Book III”, books have become a fetish item, almost erotic in their smells and textures:

I sniff your pages, thumb fanned,
from front to back, back to front.

I am addicted, stirring your musts,
your spine glues, your inks

and endpapers, the weak sweet
of pulp, your woody tones

like varieties of steeped tea.

And by “Book VII”, the book reaches its inevitable, digital end, a “homeless elegy” for the e-text “destined to wander pixilated/ on white screens, cut and pasted,/ resaveable, its next untyped/ character blinking with disbelief?” What’s remarkable about this sequence is that, despite their accessible trajectory, the poems never once feel tedious or played out. Donaldson keeps his metaphors fresh and his observations as sharp as the end of a quill.

The second section I’d like to touch on is the ekphrastic long poem “Torso: Variations on a Theme by Rilke.” (To hear Donaldson briefly discuss the ekphrastic form, you can listen to this recent interview he gave on Art Waves with Bernadette Rule.) Thankfully, Donaldson provides the full text of Rilke’s “Archaic Torso of Apollo”, (translated by Donaldson himself), on which the sequence is subsequently based, allowing him to achieve a couple of different ends.

The first, I would say, is to frame his long poem as a kind of re-translation of a re-translation. The source poem, like much of Rilke’s work, can vary wildly from translation to translation. (Indeed my version, taken from The Essential Rilke, selected and translated by Galway Kinnel and Hannah Liebmann, differs from Donaldson’s in small but important ways.) Each sequence not only retranslates the poem, but re-imagines and re-interprets it, sifting and re-sifting its imagery and altering its voice. This achievement is worth showing in detail, even in the first stanza alone. Here is Donaldson’s translation of the source poem’s opening salvo:

We cannot grasp his outlandish head,
where the eyes once ripened like apples.
But his Torso still shines like a candelabra
in which his look, turned back down

to a luminescence, lasts …

Here is Kinnell and Liebmann’s:

We never knew his stupendous head
in which the eye-apples ripened. But
his torso still glows, like a lamp,
in which his gaze, screwed back to low,

holds steady and gleams …

Now here is the first sequence of Donaldson’s poem:

His missing head is amazing. It is not for you
to know the apple of his eye, softening.
But the torso glows as by its own candlelight
with a gaze that, turned all the way down,

gathers and gleams …

And the second sequence:

The statue has no head. But without one
the remaining torso can see all around it
by a light that shines, it seems from the inside,
that fills with your gaze and then gleams with it.

The statement here about the fragmentary nature of art (in the case of the statue of Apollo’s torso, quite literal) is clear. The unfixed shapes before us – the poem and the statue – demand many interpretations and reinterpretations. If this were not enough, Donaldson also exacts a second intention with his poem – one of ventriloquism, of voice appropriation. By section IV, we find ourselves in the midst of a child’s observations about the statue (“Papa, look, here’s a funny one!/ How come he has no head? …”); by section V, we’re being led around a gallery by a slightly smug tour guide (“Oh Madam, we ask that our guests/ not touch the stone. No, not even lightly,/ and yes, even if it is already broken …”). In a way, these shifting voices tell us that, for better or for worse, art and its elucidations belong to everyone, and everyone will translate the experience of art differently. Moreover, each translation takes us further and further away from the source material, begetting whole new works, and this is in no way a bad thing.

The third section I want to touch on is Guesswork’s long poem about hockey, playfully called “Enter, PUCK.” I spotted excerpts from this piece (in slightly different versions) in the Winter 2010 issue of The Fiddlehead, and I admit I was skeptical about whether something as savage and artless as hockey could be rendered into poetry. But Donaldson proved me wrong: once again we find his well-pondered metaphors and crisp descriptive writing on display. What makes these pieces so strong is that Donaldson is unafraid to eschew an immediate correlation between his metaphors and the game in favour of a more nuanced association, one that needs to be mulled over before a connection can be made. Take, for example, these lines from “Defencemen”: “Cowboys at heart, they can circle the wagons,/ face showdowns one-on-one, grapple feisty ones/ broken loose, stare down the six-shooters.” Or take this salvo from “The Referee”: “High-strung stars drift and divide now/ on both sides of the milky firmament/ and slowly gather into mirrored symmetries.”

Whereas some parts of “Enter, PUCK” are dense and elliptical, other parts are explicitly recognizable. I’m thinking specifically of “Play-by-Play”, where Donaldson captures with uncanny precision the cadence of a TV’s commentator’s call on a hockey game:

Now here’s Cournoyer breaking in … drop pass
to Beliveau, cuts on the Short S-i-i-i-i-i-de, Ohhh …
how did Gamble get his glove on it! …

Under ten seconds to go! There’s Keon
over the line, cutting in on the wing …
Keon closing in, a scramble in front,
rebound … backhand … he Sc-o-o-o-res!

Through perfect vocabulary, alternative spellings, and well-placed line breaks, the verisimilitude of the call is incredible. The energy of the poem feeds off the energy of this excerpt.

Finally, being a born and bred PEIslander, I can’t help but touch on Donaldson’s long poem “Province House.” Having grown up in Charlottetown, I couldn’t escape having this provincial landmark in the centre of the city – with all its connotations of nation building, bourne from the impromptu meeting in 1864 of the future “Fathers of Confederation” – stamped into my small-town brain. Indeed, Charlottetown’s ruthless appropriation of this historic site for the purposes of tourism and kitsch does not seem lost on Donaldson: there are times when his poems seems fully aware of how silly the notions of regionalism or nationalism can be. In tercets, the poem summons the boozy ghost of Sir John A. MacDonald and the role he played in putting Charlottetown’s little legislature on the map.

What stands out, though, is how much Donaldson himself – or at least his speaker’s voice – does not feel like a tourist to Charlottetown. With just a few skillful brushstrokes, he captures the essence of the city’s downtown and casts vivid imagery in the reader’s mind.

In the end, Guesswork stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Palilalia as a collection of thoughtful joys and insights from a poet at the very peak of his powers. Donaldson lends a big heart and a lot of patience to these poems – and has, as a result, created something of lasting beauty. I’m anxiously looking forward to what he does next.

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